The Battle of the Beachheads
The Australian 2/4th Field Ambulance had cared for wounded and sick troops during the long advance over the Kokoda Track. By 5 November 1942, the unit had worked their way up to Kokoda itself. The Papuan bearers who accompanied them carried supplies and helped to set up medical posts, often in small sites they cleared in the jungle. The doctors and medical orderlies worked in hastily constructed shelters, often just a blanket-roofed hut with about eight rough beds to hold their patients.
By the last week of November, they had moved on from Kokoda and set up a Main Dressing Station (MDS) at Soputa, inland from the fighting at Gona and Sanananda. There they received sick and wounded men from the fighting at the beachheads.
The MDS tents were not camouflaged or dispersed and were near the Australian 7th Division headquarters. They displayed the Red Cross, which usually gave hospitals protection from attack, and the Australian flag. An American casualty clearing station serving the troops at nearby Buna had removed its Red Cross pennant the previous day when Allied aircraft mistook it as a dropping marker and were dropping stores on it. According to medical staff at the MDS, the ‘Geneva emblems’ (Red Crosses) were plainly visible to Allied and enemy aircraft carrying out low-level reconnaissance a few days earlier.
On 27 November, several Japanese Zero fighters appeared over the battle area and came in from different directions to attack the MDS, the nearby divisional headquarters and the post kitchen. Five of the seven cooks in the kitchen were killed. In the main hospital area, about 30 men, including two of the medical officers, were killed and another 50 or so were wounded. Many of the men killed had been lying on stretchers awaiting aerial evacuation.
It was a scene of utter devastation: tents holed, huts keeling over, the quarter-master’s-cum-dispensary store burning. Dead and wounded included patients, members of the field ambulance, natives and visitors to the hospital. In a few minutes a busy hospital was transformed into a miniature battlefield.
[‘Air attack on 2/4th MDS’ in Allan S Walker, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Medical series, Vol III: The Island Campaigns, Canberra, 1957, p.82]
After the attack, the MDS was moved into the jungle. It was very uncomfortable. No sunlight penetrated the trees and water often covered the whole area to a depth of 15 centimetres. The doctors and orderlies had to slosh through water above their ankles while they moved around the patients tending to their needs. Finally, on 16 January 1943, as the last battle was being wound up, the exhausted medical troops of the 2/4th Field Ambulance were flown back to Port Moresby. They had been on the move since late September 1942, caring for casualties in the long advance over the mountains – in that time, 19 full days were spent just walking along the Kokoda Track. Their return flight took 35 minutes.